An Interview

Harris Eisenstadt (III)

This interview with Harris Eisenstadt was conducted by email during May and September 2013.

Tony Reif: Tell us about the genesis of this new quartet – how did it come about? You’ve enjoyed playing sporadically with Mark Dresser over the last ten years, but have never performed with Nicole Mitchell I think? What did you have in mind with a flute and bassoon “front line” – so much more classical sounding than tenor sax/trumpet? And does this group extend your previous work in this area (writing for orchestral instruments in chamber and improvising contexts) with Fight or Flight, Ahimsa Orchestra, The All-Seeing Eye + octets, and Woodblock Prints?

Harris Eisenstadt: Golden State first formed in November 2012. I was heading out to teach at California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles and the opportunity to play some concerts with Nicole, Sara and Mark came up. I’d wanted to put Sara and Nicole together in a small group for years – I’d heard them together in the Braxton 12tet and loved how they interacted. I got to know Nicole when we had orchestra pieces read on the same program in 2010-11. I’ve worked with Mark Dresser periodically over the last ten years. He’s such a singular force and makes any group he’s in sound huge. His unique vocabulary is a perfect foil for Sara and Nicole. We played a concert at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles one day, on Nicole’s concert series at UC Irvine the next, then recorded in San Diego the day after that. As to the flute and bassoon front line being more classical… tenor sax and trumpet are also “classical” sounding at this point, aren’t they? Classical concert music, classical jazz… they’re two among so many kinds of “classical” music at this point. There was an article in the New York Times Arts section recently – by an Op-ed columnist actually, I was a bit surprised – about a clarinetist and how it’s so unusual that the clarinet is finding a prominent voice in jazz again. Well, of course great musicians have been playing fantastic and significant improvised music on the clarinet since it became a less popular instrument and continue to. That is to say, I was just thinking about sounds and textures that interest me, and musical personalities that interest me. Of course the combination of flute and bassoon timbres is fantastic; that’s what’s so attractive about orchestras of instruments – the new sonorities that come from different instrumental combinations. As to how it extends my work with groups using orchestral instruments in composed/improvised contexts; the thing is, most of the records mentioned in the question above were made up of longer form compositions played by medium and large ensembles. This is a record of mostly shorter pieces by a small group. So there are similarities but also significant differences.

TR: You mentioned the tunes were originally written with Canada Day in mind, yet the instrumentation of those two groups is quite distinct, and the rhythmic basis of some of the pieces seems rather different too (fewer rockish rhythms here I think, though some). How did you fit these tunes to the musical ethos you envisaged for the new project, and did things turn out pretty much the way you imagined it or did the approach and feel shift around a bit when these three wonderfully creative improvisers and interpreters got hold of the scores? To my ear there’s often a companionable, almost wistful feeling about the proceedings; at other times a more assertive edge enters in: momentary cabals, good-humored ripostes back and forth, occasional patches of moderately grotesque group mutterings and blabberings…Did this all emerge more-or-less spontaneously out of one rehearsal and two gigs, or had you provided the musicians with quite specific guidelines for different pieces and different sections?

HE: They were not finished pieces that Canada Day was slated to perform. It was just that I had started in on what I thought would be a fourth book. But my pieces are often malleable, and I knew that in Nicole, Sara and Mark’s hands they’d interpret them in their own unique ways. There was definitely a companionable feeling, an easy, nice vibe during the rehearsals and concerts – despite some challenging material and limited rehearsal time, and some assertive playing from everybody for sure. I think it’s probably in everybody’s nature, especially given the time constraints we had, to jump in and get good results. As to the different groupings and back and forth between people, those kinds of directions are sketched into the pieces, discussed during rehearsal, and also happen organically in open improvised sections. We made road maps during the rehearsal, tried them out on the first gig, refined them on the second, and refined them further in the studio as we recorded the pieces. I’m rarely tied to any pre-conceived idea in some absolute sense. If something seems like it needs to change, then it should. If someone suggests something that makes more sense or plays something that we like, then we keep it. I provided guidelines – to varying degrees – as the composer, then we try and make great music out of whatever the materials are.

TR: About the overall rhythmic feel of the music, Greg Burk described it as “no-groove mode…offering up a pattern, then instantly extrapolating from it” in his review of your first gig last fall, and added: “His tom tones had an Afro component, and he wrote some absolutely Congo-fied bass parts for Dresser that almost rose to the level of cycling riffs. What time signatures Eisenstadt postulated I couldn’t guess, but I looked down and saw my foot tapping anyway.” Clearly there are time signatures, some quite straightforwardly 4/4 sounding (others not) but they often seem to get disguised, played against, modified or dropped as pieces move in and out of theme statements and improvisation (you and others have called this kind of approach to rhythm “off-kilter grooves”). And what about the African connection? Nothing like continuous bell patterns or 3:2 here as far as I can hear (though maybe a hint of the former for a bit in “Straw Horse”?). Yet there’s certainly a dancing quality about how you and Mark hook up – this seems to be a regular feature of your music, regardless of the group. Obviously you’re constantly responding and honing your playing in the evolving musical environment – do you think of your drumming as somehow as all-of-a-piece, anything in the arsenal available any time as the music moves on, even if different pieces or different groups might have had different, specific drum concepts to begin with? I guess what I’m wondering is what being able to play like this actually feels like when you’re doing it!

TR: As to the overall rhythmic feel, there are lots of mixed meters – for no other reason except that I heard them so I wrote them down, and there are spaces for a soloist or the group or a subset of the group to break free of the composed materials. There are some straightforward 4/4 parts, but they are often disguised and played against. There’s not so much in the way of continuous bell patterns, but there are rhythms moving against each other in one way or another in most of the pieces. “Dogmatic” is the first piece that comes to mind but it can be found in most of them. Rhythmic counterpoint is a big part of all the writing I do, no matter how small the group, and certainly here in this quartet. Having said that, there are also moments where there are rhythmic and melodic unisons between the flute and bassoon while the bass and drums are sort of functioning as a rhythm section/accompaniment; two or three overall voices rather than four independent ones. Yes, there are lots of off kilter grooves here. No matter how non-overt it may end up sounding, I’m always exploring the African concept of ostinato – meaning non-symmetrical repeating patterns rather than symmetrical rhythms. The simplest iteration of non-symmetrical rhythmic phrase is clave, with a 3 side and a 2 side, but clave can be anything. It really just signifies a repeating pattern of some kind. A clave that is of African and African Diasporic lineage has different weights, a call side to the rhythm and a response side. That has always attracted me, so a lot of these pieces have these kinds of vamps. Having said that, vamps are great things to break up and expand on. When you have someone like Mark Dresser playing the bass you want to encourage all these incredible variations and new directions that he’ll take vamps in – harmonically, melodically, rhythmically, texturally, all of the above. And that sort of sense of a groove morphing at all times is what off kilter means, and refers to the bass lines too. As to a dancing quality, absolutely! The intersection of music and dance has always fascinated me, even if I play more for listeners than dancers these days. Even if college kids aren’t dancing with their shoes off in the back of the room to Golden State, to hear that someone was tapping their foot is sort of heartening. I would hope, not in every moment or every piece, but that there’s a dancing quality in the non-literal, multi-dimensional groove, that’s what I’m after. As for whether my drumming is all of a piece or changes from group to group, of course it changes depending on the parameters on the compositions and the improvised spaces. But as to what it feels like to play, for me it feels like dance. It’s a very physical thing. Not in a melodramatic or exaggerated way, but it is movement, you know? Sports have always been an important part of my life, hand-eye coordination sports particularly. Playing the drums to me is a similar, very physical thing to do.

TR: You’ve cited Dolphy, Yusef Lateef, Leo Smith and the AACM as possible influences here (and of course Nicole has long been involved with the AACM). Could you expand on that? (Burk: “I heard hints of the tone poems Eric Dolphy sometimes stroked out between 1963 and his 1964 death, with loose beats and strange, watercolory harmonies.” – nice phrase that.)

HE: It makes sense that someone would hear Eric Dolphy in this music because of the flute, of course. Out to Lunch was a major influence early on. Dolphy’s ideas about time and form and harmony and melody, all these elements of music, stretched but still discernible, that’s always attracted me, as well as his musical spirit in general. Of course he was involved in some freer contexts than Out to Lunch but those mutual interests in tradition and innovation are an abiding influence. As for Yusef Lateef, who I had the good fortune to work with in Adam Rudolph’s large ensemble about ten years ago, I first fell in love with Prayer to the East then Live at Pep’s – earlier Yusef records from the 50s/60s rather than later periods. They’re not so different in spirit in a way to Golden State; small group record dates with rhythm section concepts and solo spots. But Golden State is of course less directly a part of the bop tradition, I suppose. The way Yusef welcomed not just orchestral instruments but also non-western instruments into a jazz group – even though “jazz” is not a word he uses to describe his music – influenced me tremendously. Which brings me to the AACM. When I refer to the AACM I’m talking about the first generation – primarily Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton. Leo and Henry are my main sources of inspiration. As far as other influences, literature is an ongoing source of inspiration, not just for song titles, but also for ideas of narrative – linear and otherwise, that I try to bring to the music. The idea of non-programmatic narrative, abstract narrative, I find very appealing. Some of the incredible achievements in serial dramatic television of the last ten years also inspire me. And traditional music and dance of the world all influence how I want my music to be received… not that it should function in the same way – i.e. as part of social functions and life-cycle events, but in its spirit, its rawness, its honesty.

TR: “Sandy” was named after the hurricane (because it was written while you were basically shut in for a week afterwards, but it’s a rather gentle piece overall (with a very jazzy/bluesy solo by Nicole). So it’s certainly not program music we’re dealing with. How in this group, or more generally, should we understand the relationship between your music and the world, other people, politics, etc.?

HE: “Sandy” was written while we were stuck at home for a week after that crazy storm fall 2012. When I think about how the title of the song relates to the musical content, it is kind of like talking about vamps that explode and flexible forms. Subjective interpretations of both my titles and my musical materials are encouraged! There’s rarely a fixed meaning implied in a song title – whether a specific title like Sandy or some abstract turn of phrase that becomes a song title. “Sandy” is a gentle piece, yes. It was just my natural response – a somewhat introverted response, I guess, to a very nerve-wracking time. The devastation Sandy caused was tragic, but it also brought out a community spirit that was uplifting despite some of the awful things that happened. It was a strange time in New York; not as traumatic as 9/11 presumably (which I wasn’t in New York for), but it was definitely a weird universe for a week or so after. I’d guess that a lot of music was written those days after Sandy, in situations where musicians were cooped up, if they were lucky enough to have heat and power, stuck in their place, kind of reeling. I bet a lot of art was made at that time. If an artist wasn’t making work it was probably because more important things were going on; real-life problems like not having heat or power or gas. It feels important, in some small but significant way, to contribute art to the world in trying times, which relates to how I’d hope my music would be thought of in relationship to the world, to people and politics. Not to be vainglorious, but the music I make is an offering. I’m not equipped to be a politician or a doctor or a whatever. This is what I can contribute to the world. My hope is that this music touches people and makes them feel.

TR: The question I always end with: where do things go from here?

HE: Golden State has pre-release concerts in NYC on September 12 at Greenwich House and in Northampton, MA September 14 as part of the Jazzshares fall season. My agent and I are working on a Golden State Europe tour fall 2014 and summer 2014 Canadian festivals. September Trio’s second record came out June 2013 and played some CD release concerts in New York and in Europe. I’m starting in on a fourth book of songs for Canada Day and working on some concerts in New York for winter/spring 2014. There are also spring and fall prospective 2014 European tour periods for Canada Day. I just finished an orchestral commission from the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra to be premiered at the Brooklyn Museum November 23-24 2013. The piece uses Cuban and West African songs and rhythms as inspiration, and is scored for orchestra and six high school drummers. I just received a professional development grant from the university I teach at (SUNY Maritime College) to conduct some research in Cuba; hoping that will happen either December 2013 or summer 2014. There are several sideman and co-leader projects that had records come out in 2013. Nate Wooley’s second quintet record was released in July 2013 and we have some European dates in March 2014. Jason Mears Electric Quintet’s first album has just been released, as has Sean Moran’s Small Elephant’s first record. Mike McGinnis’ Angsudden Ensemble has a vinyl coming out in the fall. Convergence Quartet has a new record out and a European tour in October.